Robert Gillaume, who is 83 now, was already a veteran actor when the people at Disney approached him about being in their latest film “The Lion King”. By the early ‘90s Gillaume had already appeared in dozens of television shows. And had made himself a household name playing the witty butler “Benson”. But when Disney approached him with the project Gillaume wasn’t particularly busy acting so he took the role.
Having achieved success earlier in his career he envisioned himself in the new role.
“I began to fantasize that they wanted me to come and play the lion king. I couldn’t conceive of myself playing anything other than the lion king.”
But that wasn’t the plan. They wanted him to play a monkey. Gillaume didn’t exactly jump at the idea.
“When I didn’t seem thrilled about playing a monkey they upgraded him to a mandrill.”
Initially when he read the script Gillaume said the story didn’t make sense to him. But having already committed to the project he hit the studio. After three weeks of voicing it all started to come together.
Then Gillaume went about the business of figuring out Rafiki’s voice.
“How does this guy talk? What does he sound like?” Originally they conceived of Rafiki as a medicine man then they started calling him a shaman but they still didn’t have a voice.” Pinning down Rafiki’s sound turned in a painful process.
Eventually they nailed the sound and began to explore it and put it down on tape.
Playing the role of Rafiki was Gillaume’s first foray in voicing. (He would later provide the voice of the narrator for the HBO children’s series “Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child”.) Gillaume said it was the freest project he’d ever been a part of.
“With this character, the crazier I became the more it made sense. While I was doing it I felt absolutely free to do anything I wanted to and it all worked. It all made sense when I heard it back. Normally I would have been more circumspect with the character. When I would do the laugh and stuff, the more I did that stuff the more it worked.”
Once the voice was nailed down, animators went about perfecting the look of the mandrill. It’s been Disney’s practice to fashion their animated characters after the actors that voice them. But Gillaume won’t acknowledge any similarities between himself and Rafiki.
“I’m too vain to think that I look like a monkey.”